The first page of "Horns" sets up the novel so neatly that it's almost a shame to recapitulate it here. But this much you need to know: Joe Hill's new book is about a man named Ignatius Perrish (most of the time, he's called Ig) who wakes up hung over and unable to remember the bad things he did the night before. Also, he now has a pair of horns growing out of his head.
What Ig learns quickly is that most people don't notice the horns, or if they do, they tend to forget they saw them. What he learns more slowly is how to control and make use of the uncanny powers the horns bestow upon him.
As in Hill's first novel, 2007's "Heart-Shaped Box," the strands of the supernatural are woven tightly with the psychological, lending his work a dreamlike resonance. It's this quality that puts Hill in league with our finest fantasists (and distinguishes his style from that of his father, Stephen King).
In "Horns," we find a likable and well-meaning protagonist in Ig, whose life in his small New Hampshire town -- a life once cushioned by his family's wealth and status -- has been shattered by the rape and murder of his girlfriend Merrin.
Ig was never tried for the crime, but he's always been the primary suspect, and just about everyone in town thinks he's guilty. He's nearly friendless and mostly alone, he drinks too much, and the local cops love to hound him.
When the horns of the title appear, they seem at first like the physical mark of Ig's new state: the stigma of the fallen. But the horns don't just make Ig look like the devil. When people see him, they compulsively disclose their darkest and most vile desires -- then ask him for permission to act on them. If he gives his approval, they carry out the deeds.
These are just some of Ig's new infernal faculties, but one of the pleasures of reading "Horns" is watching him learn what they are and how to use them.
The book provides some of the same thrills we've come to expect from comics and films that return to the origin story of a perhaps too-familiar superhero. But in "Horns," we watch a devil learn how to be one.
And Ig, it turns out, has a pretty tough time of it. He's nearly incapacitated to learn the truth of what his father, his mother, even his grandmother think of him. Their confessions -- along with those of his doctor, his priest and everyone else he encounters -- are rife with hate, perversion or both, sometimes hilarious but usually unsettling. It's as though Ig were stuck watching a Shakespearean drama in which all the asides and soliloquies betray the rottenness and hypocrisy in everything.
The real horror, Hill seems to suggest, is in the unadorned truth that usually goes unspoken. And although a devil's-eye view onto the world shows Ig the world at its worst, it also gives him the opportunity to peer more deeply into the mystery of Merrin's death.
When considered as a supernatural thriller, "Horns" is thoroughly enjoyable and often original. But Hill uses Ig's new perspective as a pretext to abandon swift plotting in favor of some lengthy back story. We see Ig and his older brother as bored kids pulling dangerous stunts over one summer; we see the formation of Ig's earliest friendships; we see his first meeting with Merrin and the blossoming of their romance.
It's a risky move, to stray so far from the weird and compelling matter of the horns on Ig's head, but the gamble pays off. Here is a richly nuanced story that traces the catastrophes of adult lives gone wrong to the complex and fraught relationships of children.
Ig's metamorphosis, meanwhile, is portrayed with sparkling good humor. Every dusty old joke and aphorism with the devil bearing the brunt is dragged into the mix. There's sympathy for him, he wears a blue dress, he's out to get his due. There are pitchforks -- more than one of them -- showing up at key moments in the story. All of which would be unbearable if it weren't handled with such campy glee, and with such respect for the tradition of Satan as anti-hero, tale-teller and trickster.
The fact that the nature of the protagonist's deal with the devil is a mystery even to him makes for a refreshing take on the morality fables that usually feature Old Scratch and his ilk. Fire and brimstone have rarely looked this good.
Berry is the author of the novel "The Manual of Detection" and an editor of Small Beer Press.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times